History, Literature, Plays

A Brief History of Tragedy

Tragedy begins in ancient Greece, of course, and the first great tragedies were staged as part of a huge festival known as the City Dionysia. Thousands of Greek citizens – Greek men, that is, for no women were allowed – would gather in the vast amphitheatre to watch a trilogy of tragic plays, such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Going to the theatre in ancient Greece was, socially speaking, closer to attending a football match than a modern-day theatre.

Because audiences were so vast, actors wore masks which symbolised their particular character, so even those sitting towards the back of the amphitheatre could tell who was who. In Latin, the word for such a mask was persona, which is to this day why we talk about adopting a persona whenever we become someone else – we are, metaphorically if not literally, putting on a mask. This is also the reason why the list of characters in a play is known as the ‘Dramatis Personae’. The Romans were the first civilisation we know of to allow women to act in plays. Although women would not be allowed on the English stage until after the Restoration in 1660, the Romans got there first. In Roman plays, the colour of characters’ robes would often signify their role, so a yellow robe signified that a character was a woman, a purple robe that he was a young man, a white robe an old man, and so on. However, the Romans are more celebrated for their comedies – witness the very different styles of Terence and Plautus – than for their tragedies.


The City Dionysia in Greece possibly grew out of earlier fertility festivals where plays would be performed, and a goat would be ritually sacrificed to the god of wine, fertility, and crops, Dionysus – the idea was that the sacrificial goat would rid the city-state of its sins, much like the later Judeo-Christian concept of the scapegoat. Tragedy, then, was designed to have a sort of purging effect upon the community – and this is even encoded within the word tragedy itself, which probably comes from the Greek for ‘goat song’.

However, tragedy is, perhaps surprisingly, not the earliest of all literary genres. Nor is comedy: instead, a third genre of drama, known as the satyr play, is thought by some critics (such as Oscar Brockett in his History of Theatre) to have been the first of all literary genres, from which comedy and tragedy both eventually developed. Satyr plays were bawdy satires or burlesques which featured actors sporting large strap-on penises – the phallus being a popular symbol of fertility and virility, linked with the god Dionysus. Only one satyr play survives in its entirety: written by the great tragedian Euripides, Cyclops centres on the incident from the story of Odysseus when the Greek hero found himself a prisoner in the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed monster (we won’t make a phallus joke here).

One of the most celebrated tragedies of ancient Greece was Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ play about the Theban king who unwittingly had killed his father and married his mother. This story gave Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, the idea for his ‘Oedipus complex’, where every male child harbours an unconscious desire to do what Oedipus did. The child has to repress this, but is often only partly successful (Hamlet, for instance, doesn’t fully manage it, according to Freud’s reading of Shakespeare’s play).

In terms of genre, tragedy requires a tragic hero (and usually it is a man): one who is usually tempted to perform a deed (frequently, though not always, a murder), after which the hero’s fortunes eventually suffer a decline, ending with his death (or her death, as in the case of Antigone – though whether Antigone is the tragic ‘hero’ of Sophocles’ play remains a moot point). When viewed this way, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not really the tragedy of Julius Caesar at all: he is merely the character who is killed by the real tragic hero of the play, Brutus. It would be like calling the story of Macbeth Duncan, after the victim. Brutus is the one who is tempted to perform a murder (of Caesar himself), after which event his fortunes suffer a catastrophe (or ‘downturn’), eventually ending in his death near the end of the play. (We’ve got more interesting Shakespeare facts here.)


(Left: Sarah Bernhardt, the first ever Hamlet on film, 1900.)

More recently, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created the definitive tragic heroine of modern theatre, Hedda Gabler, in his 1890 play of that name. Hedda has been called ‘the female Hamlet’, because it is the ‘Holy Grail’ role which actresses want to take on. Recently, star of the West End (and many television dramas and comedies) Sheridan Smith offered her interpretation of Hedda. Hedda is the ‘female Hamlet’ in other ways, too: like Hamlet, she is uncomfortable with femininity, both in herself and others (she dislikes the feminine qualities of her husband, such as his fondness for slippers and his clucking aunts), and, like Hamlet, she is ‘haunted’ by the ‘ghost’ of her father (whose presence looms large in the play, and whose portrait hangs in the living room throughout).

And while we’re on the subject of women and Hamlet, it’s worth noting that the first ever Hamlet recorded on film was a woman, Sarah Bernhardt, in 1900. The first radio Hamlet was probably a woman, too – Eve Donne, in 1923. Since the seventeenth century a whole host of actresses have been attracted to the role of the Danish Prince. Tony Howard, author of the excellent Women as Hamlet and a professor at the University of Warwick, has even stated that the best Hamlet he has ever seen was played by a woman. You can see him talking about women playing Hamlet here.

In 1949, US playwright Arthur Miller wrote ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, an essay in which he justified the concept of having an ordinary person as the central character of a tragic play. This was something of a revolution, since many tragic heroes prior to this had been exceptional people, princes or kings, and Miller’s decision to take an ordinary salesman as his central figure was viewed by some as inappropriate for the subject of tragedy. He wrote his essay in response to hostile reviews which his play Death of a Salesman had received.

Horace Walpole, inventor of the Gothic novel, once opined that ‘The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.’ More recently, Mel Brooks said: ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.’

For more classical fun, check out our interesting facts about the first historian, Herodotus. For more information about the curious world of classical literature, why not check out our book full of literary trivia, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History?


  1. Pingback: Four types of drama in literature you need to know – Breaking News Nigeria

  2. Pingback: Four types of drama in literature you need to know – Deo Gratias News

  3. Pingback: Can You Solve the Sphinx’s Other Riddle? | Interesting Literature

  4. Great post man it da best

  5. Pingback: The English Hub | Preventing Tragedy

  6. I expect you know Booker’s brilliant book, The Seven Basic Plots in which Tragedy is one of them?

  7. thank u so much…….got lot help from here

  8. Nicely posted

  9. Thanks so much for following my blog and liking my post about Oral Tradition and Myth. After browsing your blog and enjoying this post I consider that quite the complement. I have a burgeoning interest in mythology and this post has helped me explore its theatrical and social applications. I can see this will be a valuable and very entertaining resource for my learning. Thank you :)

  10. Pingback: ~~WORD OF THE DAY~~ | YouthVoicesTT

  11. Thank you for this post and liking my review and introducing me to your website. I would concur that this well written post has a wonderful range. However, I disagree with your doubts about whether Antigone was a heroine. In my humble opinion Sophocles, the father of modern drama, wrote about the plight of women albeit in a conservative manner. Sophocles depicts Antigone as a strong independent woman who single-mindedly acts to defend the right to bury her brother Polyneices inside the city walls. Her intentions are defended by the Gods but she is not saved by the all powerful Gods. This is despite the fact that she acts bravely and honourably. I believe this is a comment on Greek society not on the fate of such women because it is Creon that loses all that is important to him. Sophocles says: “Men of ill judgment ignore the good that lies within their hands, till they have lost it.” It must be remembered that a few years later after Sophocles death, the great philosopher Socrates was ordered to drink a brew of poison hemlock for his views. Socrates’ student Plato himself thought poetry should be banned but this should not be seen as a reflection of Socrates whose work we know only through others. Today, Hegel is considered the basis for modern philosophy. He believed Socrates should have been sentenced to death for corrupting and subverting Athenian society to think for themselves. Censorship is forever present. We know Ibsen and Miller faced a barrage of criticism but are now recognised as great playwrights. I believe that Sophocles wrote what he could in the time he lived in but clearly challenges the status quo for his strong heroine defies danger and male authority. Greek women at this time were not citizens and their daily lives were controlled by male authority. Like Ibsen’s real heroines, Antigone is not simply a pale imitation of a man but a living breathing feminine personality. We feel and fear for both her fragility and her strength. In short, all great heroes and heroines make sacrifices for higher human values. My main interest is to understand the art of the drama itself and the impact on audiences in and beyond the writer’s life. The power behind great works endure. The challenges inside the drama are played out in individuals who either act or watch them. These ideas are either repressed or extolled by groups and society itself and so the drama continues.

    • Excellently put, I have to say. I need to revisit Antigone (it’s a few years since I read it), with what you’ve said here firmly in mind – from what I remember, I think it’s true that Antigone is the tragic heroine of the play, even if Cleon (following Aristotle in the Poetics) has a more recognisable hamartia or tragic flaw. Thanks – you’ve got me returning to Sophocles, which can never be a bad thing.

      • It is wonderful news to hear you will return to the work of Sophocles – even if you had disagreed, the drama of the play would have been kept alive but it is always poignant for me personally that despite Antigone’s tragic death, which in itself is a release from suffering, this heroine like all great heroes and heroes is kept alive and her sacrifice has not been in vain. Look forward to more posts.

  12. Pingback: Oedipus Rex (ΣΟΦΟΚΛΗΣ #6) | Peter J Verdil

  13. Man… this post just brought back my college memory… I took literature in college and this stuff just like a breakfast those days… great post by the way…

  14. Pingback: The weekly offering for Readers, Writers, and Book Lovers … | Books: Publishing, Reading, Writing

  15. Interesting stuff, I think I will have to give Cyclops a read.

  16. Regarding Antigone: have you ever considered that perhaps Creon is the tragic hero? His tragic flaw is his arrogance in holding fast to his own law instead of acknowledging the law of the gods. The tragic ending features him losing both his son and his wife to suicide over his actions. As for Antigone herself, note that her pain occurs mostly before the events of the play (that is, her brothers killing each other). As for her tragic flaw–did she even have one? It seems to me that Sophocles would have his audience applaud her piety, rather than bemoan it.

  17. Well written piece. Thanks
    Perhaps the word catharsis may be relevant when we speak about tragedy. Aristotle discussed the effect of catharsis, like clearing the air of bad feelings,- aroused by watching a series of misfortunes happening on stage. It is like listening to some beautiful piece of music that makes you choke so a good cry involuntarily set you good again.
    One of the most celebrated Hamlet was John Barrymore(’22) and John Wilkes Booth’s uncle Junius Booth.

    • Indeed, was worth mentioning that, especially since Aristotle’s Poetics was so influential on writing about tragedy (even if English tragedies seem not to have been directly influenced so much). I also love the term anagnorisis, which he uses for the realisation the tragic hero undergoes. This word should be used more…

  18. Wonderful post! Thank you so much for following my blog and leading me here as an added bonus. There’s never enough time to take all the course and read all the books that I’d like to, so finding an informative, entertaining blog about literature like this one makes my day!

  19. Thanks for this very interesting and informative post! Greeks seem to have invented almost everything…

  20. Yea! Top issue here really interesting and full of history

  21. Thank you. Thought provoking and informative.

  22. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your post is engaging, informative and thought-provoking. Very strong stuff for a blog. Bravo!!!

  23. Wonderful post. I love that quote from Horace Walpole!

  24. A wonderful post and interesting piece of writing.

  25. Great post- I flashed back to my intro to the dramatic arts seminar in freshman year!

  26. Interesting that Arthur Miller was defending the presentation of people from ordinary walks of life as tragic heroes as late as 1949. There was already in existence by 1949 a great many tragic dramas featuring protagonists from ordinary backgrounds – “Woyzeck” by Büchner; several plays by Ibsen (“Ghosts”, “Rosmersholm”, “Hedda Gabler”, “The Master Builder”, etc.) and by Strindberg (“The Father”, “Miss Julie”); “The Storm” by Ostrovsky (deserves to be much better known!); “Mother Courage and her Children” by Brecht, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by Eugene O’Neill (although, admittedly, that had not yet been published) … and so on.

    Interesting also that prose fiction had beaten drama to this: tragic protagonists from ordinary walks of life may be found throughout 19th century prose fiction – “Madame Bovary”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby-Dick”, “The Idiot”, “Anna Karenina”, “L’Assommoir” … just about every novel written by Hardy … etc. The interesting question is why drama lagged so far behind: Büchner’s “Woyzeck” only became widely known in the 20th century, so it was really Ibsen, I think, who brought the drama kicking and screaming into the 19th century!

    • I guess the reason why prose had already nailed the tragic everyday characters was because drama is written to be acted on a stage to an audience. It is easy to write prose about someone’s everyday life but it is much harder to act it convincingly and well enough to keep the audience interested. I am not saying that before “Death of a Salesman” and Miller’s defence were published there were no everyday tragic characters in drama, it just seems that they weren’t the norm – which is interesting because nowadays average quintessential people are associated with the theatre and in particular tragedy – almost as if the conventions have been flipped on their head! :)

  27. Very good post. And thank you for bringing back an amusing memory from college; of course, not at the time. To the astonishment of the Theater History class, the professor announced that the final exam would be an ‘open book test’. The question was to outline the history of either Greek tragedy or comedy in the theater. After the exam I asked her why an open book test. She responded, “This way the students have to read everything they skipped over doing during the semester.”

  28. What an interesting post!

  29. Great post, thank you